e-mail us
Peru grapples with violent past

Ayacucho, Peru

When a group of heavily armed men dressed in military fatigues arrived in Huamanquiquia, a village in the central highlands of Peru, and summoned all the villagers into the public square, Victoria Tayquiri’s first instinct was to flee.

“I said, ‘Let’s not go. Let’s hide,’ ” she said, “but my husband said, ‘No, we must go.’ ” The decision was fatal.

With the armed men were two people in civilian dress. The men divided the villagers into two groups -- those who knew the pair and those who didn’t. About 20 people who said they knew the two were shot, beaten or hacked to death with machetes and axes, many of them in front of spouses and children. The next morning, when the men had left, Tayquiri found her husband’s body.

“For me, the sun turned cold that day,” she said. “The ditches ran with blood. I felt as though I were in someone else’s body. We are mothers and widows, we are poor and we have no way to support our families.”

It turned out that the intruders were not soldiers, but guerrillas of the Maoist Shining Path. Their attack on the villagers of Huamanquiquia was apparently in reprisal for the killing of several Shining Path members.

As Tayquiri told her story in Quechua, her native language, members of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sat silently. Several of them bowed their heads or grimaced as she recounted the details of that day.

“The widows were the ones most affected by the violence, especially those who had small children,” said commission member Carlos Iván Degregori, who has done extensive research on the Shining Path and the effects of Peru’s political violence. “The Truth Commission is going to pay special attention to the widows who were victims of the violence.”

Tayquiri’s testimony came near the end of the April 8-9 public hearings by the Truth Commission in Ayacucho, the capital of the central highland province of the same name, whose apparent tranquility belies its recent history.

During the 1970s, radical members of the Communist Party of Peru recruited followers in Ayacucho under the guidance of Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor at the National University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga, where the Truth Commission hearing was held.

In May 1980, the group staged its first public act, burning ballot boxes in the rural hamlet of Chuschi. For the next dozen years, Peru was embroiled in a bitter internal conflict that pitted guerrillas of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement against the Peruvian police and armed forces.

In the crossfire

Caught in the middle were civilians, mainly rural villagers who had nowhere to hide. Typically, a column of Shining Path militants would enter a village and harangue the residents, often dragging community leaders into the public square, where they would hold a “people’s trial” and kill them. They would demand food and medicines from the terrified villagers, then melt into the hills.

For soldiers or police in pursuit, anyone who had provided the subversives with food or medicine was a collaborator. Troops would drag villagers from their homes in the middle of the night and execute them or take them to local military bases or police stations for questioning.

When that happened, the families -- mainly women -- mobilized rapidly, trying to learn the whereabouts of their loved ones or get messages, food or clothing to them. Some were sent on wild goose chases from base to base, only to be told each time that their relative was not there or had been transferred. Others held on for weeks to promises that the person would be released any day, only to have their loved one disappear.

Liz Rojas was 11 when her mother, a teacher, was detained by police on an Ayacucho street. The girl became a regular at the entrance to the police station, where she made friends with a young policeman who smuggled notes back and forth between mother and daughter -- even though he also admitted to being one of the woman’s torturers.

Then, suddenly, the mother was gone. Her final message: “I don’t think I’ll get out of here alive. Tell Liz to take care of her brother. Tell her she must be strong.”

“Everything changed for me at that moment,” Rojas told the Truth Commission, “all my dreams, everything came crashing down.”

Liz joined the countless women who frequented a place known locally as Infiernillo, where the corpses of people who had disappeared were often dumped.

“We turned bodies over,” she testified. “There were bodies of all kinds -- peasant farmers with their ponchos, men dressed in pants, young women. We turned over body after body, but we never found my mother.”

About 30,000 people were killed during Peru’s political violence, and more than 5,500 cases of forced disappearance or summary execution were reported, nearly half of them in Ayacucho, according to the Peruvian government’s Ombudsman’s Office. The real number of disappearances may never be known.

Gathering testimony

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is halfway through its 18-month mandate, has gathered testimony from more than 3,000 victims and relatives of victims. The cases presented at the first round of public hearings -- massacres and extrajudicial executions by the military, police or subversives, as well as torture, rape and disappearance -- provided a cross-section of the violence.

“We aren’t holding a trial,” said commission member and former Sen. Rolando Ames. “We aren’t even determining whether what the witnesses say is true in every detail, because we can’t verify it completely. But it is sufficiently representative of what we find in this region.”

By the end of the first day of testimony, Ames said, “the main thing came out: This country still keeps alive the gap between the mestizo, more Western world, where civil rights are respected and the law more or less functions, and areas where the Quechua-speaking population still suffers discrimination.”

The racial and economic discrimination that made poor peasant farmers bear the brunt of the political violence may be slow to change. When the Truth Commission was initially formed under interim President Valentín Paniagua (2000-2001), political squabbling immediately broke out.

The commission’s backers wanted it to look at human rights violations committed between 1980, when the country returned to democracy after more than a decade of military governments, and 2000, when the government of former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) collapsed amid a corruption scandal.

Legislators of the Aprista Party, which is led by former President Alan García (1985-90), have been especially vocal in trying to limit the commission’s mandate or discredit its members. About 43 percent of the forced disappearances took place during García’s term, as did a 1986 massacre in which more than 200 inmates who had rioted at a Lima prison were killed after they had surrendered.

Fujimori is known for the draconian antiterrorism laws instituted during the early years of his term. The capture of the top Shining Path leaders in 1992 essentially put an end to subversive activity in the country, although several Shining Path columns are still active in the jungle.

What remained of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement was virtually decimated in April 1998, when military commandos stormed the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima, where 14 militants were holding about 70 hostages. Two soldiers, one hostage and all the hostage takers died in the siege.

Long road to reconciliation

Despite the rancor left from a dozen years of political violence and eight more of Fujimori’s heavy-handed rule, Ames is optimistic about prospects for reconciliation among Peruvians.

“Reconciliation isn’t something abstract,” he said. “It has to do with making opportunities to share the victims’ pain and also listening to contradictory testimony. The road to reconciliation is long, but I think we’ll find the way. We’re especially concerned that this help strengthen the democratic governance of the country.”

Others, though, are more cautious about how far a Truth Commission can go in bringing about reconciliation. Richard Lyster, a human rights lawyer who was a senior member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was among those listening to the witnesses in Ayacucho.

“If I close my eyes, listening to the testimonies today, I could be in Johannesburg or Cape Town, listening to similar stories from men and women there,” he said. “I have an enormous sense of déjà vu.”

Looking back at the process in his country, Lyster said, “I think the Truth Commission in South Africa tried to be all things to all people. It couldn’t succeed at everything. My view is that it succeeded very well. I would say that we achieved more than 75 percent of what we set out to do.”

One issue on which members differed, however, was reconciliation.

“I saw [the commission] as essentially a truth-seeking, investigative body,” he said. “People from the church had a very different notion. They focused more on the reconciliation part. We weren’t mandated to go out and reconcile people. Our commission was premised on the basis that a full disclosure of the truth would in time lead to reconciliation -- that the truth will set you free.”

Lyster said that many attempts to bring opposing factions together for reconciliation were artificial. “Perpetrators didn’t want to shake hands with victims and vice versa,” he said. “Reconciliation is a very difficult concept, and one that cannot be foisted on people.”

For Fr. Moisés Morales Cruz, who was the Catholic pastor in Huancapi, Ayacucho, the complexity of the violence makes the aftermath even more difficult.

“In Ayacucho, both subversives and soldiers turned their backs on God,” Morales Cruz told the commission. Over the years, he said, he saw atrocities committed by the military -- although he was quick to add that not all officers or soldiers were implicated in human rights violations -- as well as the Shining Path. At least once, he said, he saw Shining Path militants pay off soldiers to let them go free.

Not with millions of dollars

“It would be impossible to provide restitution” to children for the loss of their parents, he said, “not with all the millions of dollars in the world.”

The Catholic church’s history during the political violence is mixed. While priests, religious and lay church workers often remained in communities despite threats, sometimes performing functions that were abandoned when local authorities were killed or forced to flee, the church’s official stance in Ayacucho was shaped by then-Archbishop, now Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani.

Cipriani, who publicly ridiculed human rights workers, was known for hobnobbing with the military, a stance that prompted protest when he was named archbishop of Lima and made a cardinal.

For Germán Vargas, who heads the Ayacucho office of the Evangelical Council of Peru’s Peace and Hope Commission, reconciliation must be a task for all churches.

“The work of clarifying the truth and procuring justice for the victims must be aimed at reconciling people. That is the best guarantee that this tragedy will never occur again. Both Catholics and evangelicals must begin to acknowledge what they failed to do, or what they did wrong, and ask forgiveness,” he said. “There are many wounds that have not healed. Our task is to accompany the victims, and it would be a good message to the nation to see Catholics and evangelicals working together at this.”

Rojas, whose mother disappeared 11 years ago, said “On the Day of the Dead, everyone in Ayacucho goes to the cemetery.”

“I don’t know where to go. I don’t know if I should put out flowers. Sometimes I feel as though she’s going to come back. Sometimes I leave the door open so she can come in. But she never returns.”

Primitivo Quispe vividly remembers the day two dozen soldiers arrived in Accomarca. As news spread that the troops were approaching, the young men in the village fled into the hills, fearing violence. Arguing that if the men were not subversives, they would not have left, the soldiers took out their wrath on the remaining villagers. They raped the young women, then lined men and women up separately and herded them into two houses. Locking the doors, they fired automatic weapons at the buildings, then set them ablaze. Sixty-nine people died in the 1985 massacre.

“My village weeps and asks for justice,” Quispe said. “My village will never forget.”

Barbara Fraser is editor of Latinamerica Press, based in Lima, Peru.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002